Part of me feels guilty that after travelling all the way to Paris, somewhere I haven’t visited in about 4 or 5 years, rather than exploring the city, practising my French or surrounding myself in Parisian culture, I instead find myself at a Tea Party led by a Welsh poet and end up drinking tea for 2 hours while listening to British and American poetry read out by the friends I travelled there with and a wonderful assortment of people from across the globe. However, this is how I spent my first afternoon in Paris, at a ‘Mad Hatter’s Tea Party’ in the library of Shakespeare and Company – an independent bookstore that sits just south of the Notre Dame.
The Tea Party is led by Panmelys, a Welsh poet and painter living in Paris whose fascination of language and love of poetry drives the session. The moment you walk into the library, tea and biscuits are thrust before you as Panmelys ruffles through countless sheets of paper all with a carefully selected poem chosen especially for today. While you look round to find a spot to squeeze into, Panmelys welcomes everyone in with a heartfelt smile and a keen eye for participation. She expects everyone to introduce themselves to the group and describe a bit about themselves but, rather than feeling like an awkward initiation akin to something you’d see in an AA meeting or a drama warm up game, Panmelys seems enthralled by each familiarisation, asking questions and connecting the dots between strangers. A real feeling of community is created from the offset of the Tea Party as strangers begin to relate and discuss similarities, stories and poetry amongst themselves.
A sense of almost childlike wonder is created, helped by the fact my friends and I had to sit on the carpet as there was no space left, but also in the way Panmelys leads the session. Everyone is invited to come to the front and read out a poem of their choice but instead of just sitting there and listening, Panmelys interrupts throughout: telling the readers to talk more slowly and pointing out particular moments in the dichotomy of voice and verse. She made us think about language in a wholly new yet fundamentally simple way: that each word weighs a ton so spend time on every syllable.
Below is a short extract from one of her Tea Parties (posted by Glenn Thomson), which gives an excellent idea of the atmosphere that Panmelys creates; the highlight being when, in the middle of beautifully emphasising the importance of words to her group, the phone abruptly rings so Panmelys scampers over to answer it and goes on to shout “Hello? Hello! I can’t hear you!” :
So why have I chosen to talk about this Tea Party? Yes, it was a delightful experience and one I’d definitely recommend to you next time you find yourself in Paris (all information is at the end of this post), but something else stuck out to me. The moment I walked into that library, an immediate sense of authenticity was created, and one I could not quite put my finger on. Yes, the smell of old books and taste of tea creates a homely atmosphere, yet what was it about this particular room and set of strangers that made me feel so comfortable?
Panmelys struck a chord that is so rare to find today. I know it is so easy to go around saying “everything’s so corporate and commercial” and nothing seems to hold that intrinsic “authenticity” people hunt down so desperately. This word seems increasingly complex each time I think about it, as “authenticity” has ironically become a term used in corporate and commercial environments as another buzz word thus becoming everything it is trying to separate itself from! Yet this Tea Party wasn’t that and the vague feeling of authenticity created wasn’t forced or promotional but genuine. Thus, I tried to locate exactly how this rare feeling was created and why it falls short in so many other strands of culture and entertainment.
Panmelys’ balance between genuine intrigue and critical feedback was such a surprise and a rare treat that it made me realise the lack of these things in how we absorb culture on a day-to-day basis. This excerpt from her website sums it up perfectly:
“I’m afraid there’s not a great deal that would satisfy the kind of world we live in today, more interested in certificates, diplomas, published work, success, than in the creative product as it is, which, if it is appreciated and enjoyed, should be a proof of its being, by itself, worthwhile.”
Her focus on the very appreciation of a creative product being worthwhile in itself seems so simple, yet is something lacking today in a professional capacity. I am aware of how naïve this may sound and how the financial result in cultural and creative products is in many ways what sparks its creation in the first place and that this supposed “authentic” state of being worthwhile can never really exist. It’s a fantasy that we all love to sign up to, as it makes the art we consume seem more in tune with the human spirit rather than some capitalist contraption, thus making it more genuine and meaningful.
However this term ‘authenticity’ becomes increasingly hollow and even paradoxical the more you think about it. The moment you define or market something as being ‘authentic’ then surely it just loses this value as it has created (or you have imposed onto it) a self-awareness of itself, thus losing the valid stamp of authenticity.
Similarly, the very pursuit of authenticity in culture and art seems intrinsically flawed. I’ve recently been following Christoph Niemann, an illustrator who explores abstraction and interactivity (and whose new-ish documentary on Netflix is something I would certainly recommend). Niemann constantly questions the vague title of ‘authenticity’, stating it is like “changing your kids’ diapers”. It’s boring and mundane, if people really wanted authenticity we would be watching films on filling out your taxes and listening to music about your bus journey to work. Yes, it is an important part of life but no one wants to sign up to and pay for the cultural experience of taking a dump in the morning. So by following this argument through, we don’t seek the authentic due to its everyday realism but rather a type of authenticity which acknowledges and understands the mundane nature of much of human existence but chooses to move away from this to specifically emphasise a kind of narrative or focus.
(SIDENOTE I am aware of how broad these strokes are and how authenticity in culture is far more than the relationship between the mundane and the interesting but this is a useful starting point when thinking about what makes an experience feel authentic.)
So how does this all relate back to Panmelys’ Mad Hatter’s Tea Party? The tropes of the authentic popped up throughout the session as people passed around biscuits while strangers shared stories about everything from the Walt Whitman piece they read at their wedding to a poem someone wrote after their mother had passed away. However, when I think back to it, the scenario in which everyone was there wasn’t authentic at all. Not really. Yes, it felt heartfelt and sincere at the time yet, upon reflecting on it, the entire afternoon was a brilliantly bizarre mix of characters and stories, both real and fictional, that would have never had crossed paths if not for this Tea Party.
This was an artificially created scenario, one in which few people would find themselves in ‘authentically’; but through this scenario, people were able to recite and discuss poetry in a completely trustworthy and worthwhile environment. It was not the authenticity of the afternoon that created this atmosphere but instead the rules and philosophy Panmelys imposed and suggested (everyone had to speak, you couldn’t talk amongst yourselves, one should always carry a poem in your pocket and a song in your heart) that made everyone so trusting and honest.
Perhaps the conclusion I have come to is that the world needs more of this, more artificially constructed scenarios that allow people to be honest with one another and to accept that not every encounter needs to be authentic and real but instead, if you make an effort and trust the people you have surrounded yourself with, a situation can be created through direction and endeavour in which people can be authentic inside a kind of artificiality.
Perhaps Panmelys had it right from the start as she states in an interview “I like to encourage people not necessarily to read good poetry but to read and write their thoughts, to give them form”; it is not the quality that counts but rather the truth within a form. For her that form is poetry and painting, but it is also the creation of a community that I would recommend anyone visiting.
The Mad Hatter’s Tea Party is on every Sunday between 4pm and 6pm at Shakespeare and Company in Paris (37 Rue de la Bûcherie, 75005 Paris, France)
Below are links to the bookstore’s site, Panmelys’ personal website alongside any articles and sites I have cited from / recommend from the post:
Shakespeare and Company:
Articles and Essays I’d recommend on Authenticity:
Boswell, Marshall. Understanding David Foster Wallace. 1st ed. Columbia, SC: Univ. of South Carolina Press, 2009. Print.
Milnes, Tim, Kerry Sinanan, and Angela Esterhammer. Romanticism, Sincerity And Authenticity. 1st ed. Palgrave Macmillan, 2010. Print.
Trilling, Lionel. Sincerity And Authenticity. 1st ed. Harvard University Press, 1971. Print.
Wallace, David Foster. “E Unibus Pluram: Television And U.S. Fiction”. Review of Contemporary Fiction 13.2 (1993): 151-94. Print.